Investigation by Neil Mackay
20 August 2006
JUST a couple of days ago a pilot was stopped by a security guard while
getting ready to board his aircraft at a bustling British airport and
informed he had a fork in his bag which would have to be taken away.
Sarcastically, the pilot says he "asked if the security guard would come
up to the flight deck and stop me pointing the aircraft at terra firma.
Also would the guard help me to decide if I should use the fork as a
weapon against myself or the axe that sits beside me on the flight deck?
Common sense seems to be a thing of the past."
Speak to anyone in the aviation industry today and they'll tell you the
current draconian security measures at British airports - which see
passengers prohibited from taking even water onboard in some instances -
are "bureaucratic madness," "security lunacy," "stupid" and "absurd."
They are unanimous in their fury towards the government for enforcing
regulations they see as "ridiculous."
Airport and airline staff also point out that security rules are not
followed uniformly and safety measures are inconsistent. Some accuse
Britain of falling in line behind "US paranoia", and others say the
industry is "being subjected to knee-jerk reactions" which threaten the
future of global aviation.
One pilot pointed out that their bag was searched, but not their laptop
carrier. They were allowed to hold onto their mobile, torch and car
keys, but one pair of their glasses had to be put into the hold - they
were, however, allowed to hold onto another pair of glasses. Another
staff member, just a few places behind the pilot in the security queue,
wasnt allowed to keep their mobile.
The pilot pointed out that the crew were later given metal knives and
forks to eat their in-flight food, adding angrily that it was "utter
morons who think up this sh*t". Unsurprisingly, few of these aviation
industry insiders will put their names to their comments.
A member of BAA - British Airports Authority - told how last week they
had to bring their passport and national insurance number to Heathrow to
get their BAA airport ID card renewed. However, theyd gained access to
the secure areas of Heathrow - where they needed to go to get their ID
renewed - using their old, out of date ID card. They referred to the
experience as "farcical". Some pilots operating in the UK do not have
any airport ID as they have yet to complete their security checks.
Another member of Heathrow staff added: "Just where do they get these
A bus driver at one of Britains airports said that coaches ferrying
staff around airports were not searched after entering security zones.
"That is a real security risk," the driver said. One of the suspects
arrested during the 'liquid bomb' plot raids worked at Heathrow.
"You hide something lethal on the coach, they dont find it in their
search and you pick it up five minutes later. This must be the easiest
way for crew to get illegal items aboard an aircraft. Amazingly, the
department of transport regard this risk as acceptable. Once I
accidentally left my mobile phone on the seat and it was still there
when I returned. So much for thorough searching. The only solution is to
have a different coach airside."
An air stewardess said one of her colleagues was allowed her lipstick
through security, but not her eyeshadow. A member of ground crew staff
said he had a metal knife, fork, spoon and Leatherman in his staff
Carolyn Evans, head of flight safety at the British Airline Pilots
Association, says that at BALPAs next meeting with Transec, the
governments transport security arm, "we will be raising with them some
of the anomalies and the lack of security training and the
inconsistencies that have come out of the heightened security measures".
Among the issues that BALPA will raise with the government are "the
confiscation of essential tools of the trade, such as pens, lap-tops,
soft lens eyewash and mobile phones, the impossible operating
constraints of having bags in the hold when operating short-haul with a
frequent change of aircraft" and "lack of access to food and drink".
Evans added that "the procedures put in place are not sustainable long
term, and unless the passengers are treated more reasonably we will not
have an industry left."
Despite the heavy security procedures hampering passengers and staff,
the UK does not have a nationally recognised airside ID card - merely
airside ID cards for each airport. Pilots and other aviation staff want
a national ID system in place.
A member of staff at Manchester airport said that while passengers and
crew were not allowed to take liquids through security, a shop assistant
who worked in WH Smith on the other side of the security gates was able
to take "several cases" of juice through. The woman didnt go to the shop
but walked into baggage handling.
Staff cynicism is endemic. "The sheep are buying it", writes one
American pilot on a website used by air crew. "We've already seen Angie
Airhead, the 6pm news reporter, on the scene at the airport interviewing
passengers stuck in hour-long screening lines. Angie: How do you feel
about these new security measures? Traveller: If it promotes the war on
terror, Ill gladly give up my tube of Pepsodent. The only thing it
promotes, moron, is tooth decay."
Air crews are also angered security staff at airports are not under the
control of the police but rather work for private companies. A British
airline worker said: "Airport security should be a civil service
function with properly trained and educated screeners".
Ground staff - as well as not being allowed to bring food and water
airside - are also prohibited from taking radios through security. "How
are you supposed to keep in touch and get your flight out in reasonable
time if you cant communicate," one worker said.
Just like the workers in the aviation industry, the bosses of airline
companies are outraged with the government.
Michael O'Leary, the Irish boss of Ryanair, the budget airline, issued
the government with a seven-day ultimatum on Friday saying that airport
security must be restored to normal levels or else hed sue for
Just like the ordinary members of staff, O'Leary was scathing when
referring to the security measures as "Keystone Cops-like," and saying
that it was "insane" to take away water bottles and toothpaste from
"We are not in danger of dying at the hands of toiletries, he said,
adding that Osama bin Laden must be rolling around the caves of Pakistan
laughing. O'Leary described as horse manure frightening government
warnings which amounted to telling the public it was a choice between
delays or death.
Ryanair bookings were 10% down after the recent terror threat, and the
cost of the additional security to the company has been around 2 million
so far. The people being subjected to intense security were, O'Leary
said, "not terrorists and not fanatics. They are actually called
O'Leary went on: "The best way to defeat terrorists and extremists is
for ordinary people to continue to live their lives as normal. Because
of additional security restrictions imposed by the government the
shambles at airports has been anything but normal.
"The UK government successfully led the return to normality of the
London Underground within two days of the July 7 terrorist attacks. It
is important they now restore security at airports to normality and
remove some of the nonsensical, and - from a security perspective -
totally ineffective restrictions which were introduced.
"If they dont and they allow these restrictions to stay in place, then
the government will have handed the extremists an enormous PR victory."
The cost to UK airlines so far has been more than 300 million. The
no-frills airline, easyjet, has cancelled more than 500 flights. If the
new restrictions remain in place, BAA says it will need 1000 more staff.
Ryanair wants the government to send in the army and police next time it
orders new security measures such as quadrupling the number of body
searches. Virgin Atlantic also says the government should pay for extra
security. The government, however, has ruled out an early return to
security norms, saying "it has no intention of compromising security."
Politicians, like airline staff, are now breaking ranks and damning the
governments response to the terror threats.
In the next edition of Flight Training News, Lembit Opik, the popular
Lib-Dem MP and a pilot himself, will let rip against the security
hysteria. He says: "The unavoidable logic of the ever-tightening noose
of security leads directly and quickly into a police state... What has
happened is a very real compromising of our civil liberties... Risk
management, not risk elimination, is the sensible approach." Airline
security needs "informed decision-making," he goes on, adding:
"Ministers are only concerned with checking everyone who gets on a
plane, rather than figuring out why some people board for the wrong
Opik called on the government "to make realistic plans with airports and
airlines now, not during the next alleged plot, when the temptation for
knee-jerk over-reaction is obviously greater. Long term, the solution
isnt found in turning Heathrow into an overcrowded shanty town of
frustrated travellers... the challenge is having proportionate
Roger Wiltshire, Secretary-General of the British Air Transport
Association, spoke of the lack of standardised security procedures. In
Britain, a passenger cant take liquid through security, but can buy
liquid (including alcohol which is flammable) airside in duty free and
take that on to a flight - as long as they are not travelling to the
If they are going to America, they cant take any liquid onboard - but
they can take food. Bags can only be taken onboard flights in Britain if
they fit precise measurements. In Europe, no such baggage size
restrictions exist. On US domestic flights there is no bag size
restriction. No lighters can be taken on an aircraft, but matches are
allowed. Prescribed medicines must be verified by a pharmacist at the
airport, but no toiletries or cosmetics can be taken on. If a passenger
is travelling to the USA, they are subjected to a secondary search at
the departure gate.
"We want a consistent international standard," said Wiltshire. Without a
standardised system, air travel will be chaotic. A passenger leaving
Paris and going to New York via London would, if their hand baggage was
too big, have to check-in their carry-on luggage at Heathrow if they
wished to get to JFK airport. They would also have to put banned items
like shampoo and sweets - in the hold. If the stop-over time between
flights was just an hour it is unlikely any passenger would make it.
Flights are also being seriously delayed as US authorities want advanced
passenger information - such as name and address - sent from carriers
and cleared before the flight takes off. Before the recent alleged plot,
the US processed passenger information while the flight was en route.
"If you compare the aviation industry to any other transport sector, we
are ahead, said Wiltshire."
"After 7-7 what happened to security on the tube? Very little. The more
security that is loaded on to us, the less competitive we become. There
should be appropriate security standards applied to all sectors of the
Wiltshire added his voice to calls for the government to fund the
additional security measures. "The threat is to the nation," he said.
"We are the proxy for the nation." The terrorists arent attacking the
airline; they are making a political point. The government, however, has
no interest in funding the costs of additional security. It is all down
to the industry, and the cost trickles down inevitably to the consumer.
Thats highly unfair as the consumer gets it both ways - the cost and the
inconvenience." Wiltshire added he could not envisage how the security
situation could get any worse.
Philip Baum, who runs the aviation security company Greenlight, edits
the magazine Aviation Security International and is a former soldier in
the Israeli army and head of security with TWA International, said:
"After 9/11 we banned sharp objects, now its liquid. As long as we look
for the items rather than the person we will not have a security system
based on commonsense."
His answer? Passenger profiling, or what he calls "positive" profiling
as is used in Israel. This would see passengers - such as the young
family with two kids on the way to Costa del Sol or the frequent flier
business man - not being subjected to gruelling security checks. "This
would reduce the size of the haystack," Baum said. "If you had David
Beckham on a flight - and you know its David Beckham - why make him take
off his shoes? Its a waste of time and money. We dont not screen these
people, we still do the basic checks on them, but we have got to decide
who will be subjected to thorough security checks, otherwise the
industry will grind to a standstill."
Inevitably, this means that more Muslims than any other group will be
subjected to the most rigorous security. Baum denies that this is
racist. He points out that a number of the suspects arrested recently
were white converts to Islam. Baum believes that politicians are scared
to adopt profiling because of "political correctness."
"If we extract the people who dont pose a threat, that pool of people
will include many Muslims," he added. To underscore his point that the
current level of security cant be maintained, Baum said: "A drug mule
can smuggle a kilo of cocaine in their body cavity. Couldnt a bomber do
the same with explosives? If that turned out to be a plot, what would we
do? Internally examine every passenger?"
He added the current policy was creating huge queues in airports which
themselves could be targeted by suicide bombers as has happened in
Israel. "Our eye is off the ball," said Baum. "We are being driven by
past events, not future possibilities. We are allowing terrorists to
He pointed out that a form of profiling already exists when passengers
disembark from a plane. Passengers leaving flights from Jamaica are
routinely searched for drugs and flights from Africa are monitored
closely for illegal immigrants whereas EU passengers get relatively
little attention from officials and customs.
"If you can pull people aside based on nationality when they leave an
aircraft, why not do it beforehand as well," Baum asked. He also
suggests changing the location at which searches are conducted in
airports. Rather than everyone being screened at a central point -
airport security - as now happens, Baum suggests shifting security
checkpoints to the departure gate. That way a passenger going to Ibiza
isnt subjected to the same intense level of scrutiny as someone flying
"The central checkpoint for everyone would just make sure that they had
a proper ticket to get through to airside and were who they said they
were. It would cut down queues and be more responsive and intelligent.
Right now, our security is clumsy and the same across the board for
everyone. That cant be allowed to continue."
HITBSecConf2006 - Malaysia
The largest network security event in Asia
32 internationally renowned speakers
7 tracks of hands-on technical training sessions.
Register now: http://conference.hitb.org/hitbsecconf2006kl/